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Coaching high achievers



A ‘one size fits all’ approach to coaching is not always appropriate and a number of factors need to be taken into account when coaching high achievers, advises Graham Jones, research and diagnostics director at Lane4 Management Group Ltd.

Of fundamental importance when coaching high achievers is the need to establish a coaching relationship built on trust and mutual respect. The impact of the coaching is determined by a number of factors, including the coach being challenging, flexible, and adding value quickly.

The last decade or so has witnessed an increased focus on performance excellence in business, of which one particularly common practice is that of coaching people to higher levels of performance.

The emphasis in business coaching has tended to be on providing support for underachievers, resulting in little focus on coaching people who are already performing to high levels. This article addresses this knowledge gap and focuses specifically on the character of high achievers, their coaching needs, and associated best coaching practices.

Literature on business coaching is characterised by a ‘one size fits all’ assumption and has generally failed to clarify the differences in coaching style and approach required for ‘high achieving’ versus ‘lesser achieving’ individuals.

Specific needs

However, recent research on high achievers suggests that they are, indeed, different from lesser achievers, and that they are likely to have specific coaching needs. The nature of the relationship between high achievers and their coaches is therefore of particular importance.

“High achievers are very demanding of themselves and of their coach in helping them achieve their goals.”

The characteristics of typical high achievers provide an interesting picture. Their intense self-focus on personal performance and development is closely aligned with self-imposed, extremely stretching goal-driven behaviour to which they are totally committed. High achievers are thus very demanding of themselves and also of their coach in helping them achieve their goals.

In their quest to continually strive for improvement, they are constantly in search of new and better ways of doing things, so it is not surprising high achievers are often a sponge for information.

There are also a number of implications for coaches of high achievers. Perhaps most importantly, the coach needs to ensure that the core content of the coaching satisfies the high achiever’s personal performance and development needs. As part of this process, the high achiever’s goals should be the clear and central focus of the coaching, demanding from the coach a thorough knowledge of the goal setting process.

Demonstrate empathy

It is beneficial for the coach to have a good understanding of the world of high achievement and what it takes to become a high achiever in order to demonstrate empathy for the total commitment required. A coach should expect to be challenged due to the demanding nature of high achievers.

Further, the high achiever’s quest for continual improvement means that the coach should strive to help them identify the different possibilities and options available. Their thirst for new information can be satisfied by providing them with a steady supply of relevant information that will stimulate their thinking around continual improvement.

The characteristics of high achievers appear to be more about the outcome of being high achievers as opposed to the process of high achievement. First, they tend to be confident in their own ability which means that the coach will need to be similarly self-assured in the presence of high achievers if a good working relationship is to be established.

Second, high achievers can sometimes feel isolated and lonely. In sport, high achievers can experience similar isolation and loneliness since they are in the minority and can be a ‘target’ for their competitors. The implication for the coach is to establish the nature of the coaching relationship in terms of the frequency and method of contact outside formal coaching sessions, since the high achiever will benefit from the knowledge and comfort that a trusted advisor is accessible.

High achievers require a coach with credibility and who has confidence in his/her own ability, but a lack of ego in the coach is equally important. The implication for the coach is that s/he does not necessarily have to have achieved what the high achiever has achieved, but does have to have been successful in his/her own sphere of life and, at the very least, have a detailed and informed knowledge, of and empathy for, the high achiever’s situation and circumstances.

The coach also needs to portray genuine confidence in his/her own ability, and in particular, should constantly explore his/her own motives for coaching high achievers.

Hunger for feedback

High achievers have a hunger for feedback and will often ask the coach for detailed, and often instant, feedback across a wide range of areas. A coach needs to be ready to provide developmental feedback at all times. Due to the trusting nature of the coaching relationship, the coach should be aware he/she is seen as an important source of confidence-boosting in the form of positive reinforcement of skills, knowledge, and competencies and provide positive, motivational feedback as appropriate.

High achievers need to feel continuously at the cutting edge so that it is imperative that the coach keeps up to date with the most recent theories and literature. Also, since high achievers are often under severe time pressure, they want to see rapid results as a consequence of the valuable time and effort they are devoting to the coaching process. The coach must have a continual focus on helping the high achiever to identify specific actions that will deliver short-term as well as longer-term goals.

Coaches of high achievers should maintain a professional relationship at all times. Due to the time pressure associated with being a high achiever, the coach may not have much time to make an impact and therefore needs to find out how s/he can add value quickly. Establishing a verbal agreement with the high achiever in terms of expectations and time frames can be helpful in this context.

“The coach must have a continual focus on helping the high achiever to identify specific actions that will deliver short-term as well as longer-term goals.”

Finding the right pace with respect to the progress of the coaching is also important. The coach should be able to recognise when to dwell on a specific topic or issue and when to move on quickly. Being flexible is a further prerequisite for coaching high achievers successfully; the coach should expect the coaching agenda to change and be able to respond accordingly. Finally, the high achiever will want and expect the coach to be challenging, providing a level of stretch that takes them beyond their current thoughts and behaviours.

There are some important differences between high and lesser achievers that should be taken into account as part of the coaching process. It is important to emphasise, however, that this does not mean that there are some coaching practices that are only relevant to high achievers; indeed, many, if not all, of the factors are common across coaching in general. Rather, the important message is that there are some practices that are particularly important to consider when coaching high achievers.

There is not a stereotypical high achiever against which all coaching should be benchmarked. It is an individual-specific practice, in terms of both content and approach, and there are key characteristics that coaches need to be aware of before entering a coaching relationship with a high achiever.

Lane4 is a performance development consultancy founded by Olympic gold medal winner Adrian Moorhouse, Professor Graham Jones and Adrian Hutchinson. It works with board level individuals and teams from blue chip organisations such as Coca-Cola Enterprises, Safeway Stores plc, Deutsche Bank, and Woolworths Group plc.

2 Responses

  1. same category… or different?
    Interesting article.

    In commenting, Jeremy says “can a coach have credibility in areas that they do not have personal experience”… On the whole I agree, there needs to be rapport and trust. That is often built on shared experiences, sport, business etc. However as has been proven in the world of sport a good coach in one sport can coach in other areas – just look at the original work of Hemmery or Gallway.

    I have found that many high performers in one area want the insights available from people with a different perspective. For example I was asked to coach a racing driver, which resulted in him climbing to second in the world rankings in one season, and being more consistent in his overall performance and attitude. Equally I have found that I work best with high performers in any sector (sport, business and media) but do not get good results with ‘low performers’.

    There are some risks with ‘crossing disciplines’ for example, in sport the individual high performer is being coached in excellence in one area, in business, high performers do not have the luxury of such a narrow field.

    Shared experiences and references certainly can help the relationship. But for any coach to believe they can coach anyone… well to me that is the biggest danger in the world of coaching…….

    If the client can trust the coach then that is at least the start – equally the coach has to trust the client to undertake effort too. Unfortunately I have in the past ‘sacked’ clients for not putting the work in to their performance… That is a hard thing to do.

  2. Coaching high achievers – and others
    I applaud Graham for both recognising that ‘different folks need different strokes’ in his article, and yet the basics of ‘good coaching practice’ apply to all types of coaching clients.

    I would also want to recognise many other different categories of client, if I may helpfully, not the least because the definition of a ‘high achiever’ alone may seem very subjective. And *not* because the coaching process itself may need to be materially different, but because the coaching style and readyness of coach-client rapport may well be.

    I am sure you have your own different categories? Mine include
    – Owner managers v senior employed excutives
    – Self-sponsored v organisation-sponsored
    – age, experience, seniority, sector, organisation-size, national culture/ownership and even gender, where the coaching clients *themselves* feel these are very different and relevant categories.

    Which leads to an interesting thought, noting that Graham’s business is founded by the wonderful Adrian Moorhouse – a not insignificant ‘high achiever’ himself!

    Given a choice of coaches, do you not think most coaching clients prefer a coach who shares their own perceived ‘category’ of prior experience, understanding, values and credibility?

    I know this will be ‘coaching heresy’ for many very skilled and professional coaches. But can a ‘low achieving’ coach personality really as easily engage the credibility, trust and respect of a high achieving client as a ‘high achiever’ coach? Or a big Corporation coach as readily engage the goodwill of a new business start-up Entrepreneur? Or vice versa?

    Of course a skilled Executive Coach can coach any category of executive, just as a midwife can be brilliant without ever having had children, or an onchologist who never faced cancer. But doesn’t it help enormously if there are shared experiences on really critical elements of a coaching agenda between professional and client?

    That is certainly my experience in terms of client preferences at least, which should always be our first concern? And I think good coaches need to be aware of this dilemma.

    A mismatch of client hopes and practical coaching experience/life-style understanding can so easily give ‘coaching’ a bad name, and deciding where your forte as a coach lies seems to me to be rather important.

    What do you think?

    Best wishes


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